The Incredible Roses from Kordes
by Nanette Londeree, Marin County Rose Society, Master Rosarian
This article was originally published in The Marin Rose in 2006
'Lavendar Lassie' photo by Rich Baer
In October 1887, Wilhelm Kordes I, at the age of twenty-two, founded a horticultural nursery and market garden in Elmshorn, Germany. Within a few years, he abandoned most of the plants in his nursery and decided to focus on the breeding of roses. His first son, Wilhelm II, was born in 1891, followed by brother Hermann. At an early age, they joined their father in the business, and ultimately led them to a level of success none of them even dreamed of. As they embarked in their rose breeding, they’d agreed that the best rose in the world at the time was the pink ‘Caroline Testout’, and the only thing better would be a dark red version of the rose – that would be their focus.
Wilhelm II was an eager student of rose breeding. At the age of fourteen after learning the mechanics of hybridizing, he discovered the work of Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk who, in 1865, had proposed the theory of heredity based on his observation of the behavior of peas. Young Wilhelm II was intrigued with the potential and felt he had a key to life in his hands. In 1912, he went off to England with friend and fellow rose enthusiast Max Krause to learn more about roses from some of the “great masters.” He enjoyed living in England and decided to start his career in earnest there when World War I interceded. He and Max were interned on the Isle of Man as enemy aliens, and there he stayed for the next four-and-a -half years.
He spent the time in confinement wisely – both learning the “King’s English” and reading everything he could about roses. He meticulously extracted and recorded every rose parentage he could find and analyzed the roses’ traits, both the obvious like color and fragrance, as well as other features of the blooms, leaves, and overall plant form. This intense study would enable him greatly in his future breeding.
He went home to Germany after the war, and the family moved the business to Sparrieshoop. Wilhelm I turned over the business to his two sons and from that time on the firm was known as W. Kordes Söhne. Hermann agreed to let Wilhelm II focus on the breeding, and the serious rose breeding began in 1920. With his knowledge of rose parentage, he sought to develop new races of hardy, healthy roses and utilized native European species including R. canina, R. rubiginosa and R. spinosissima. He worked on breeding hardier roses, ones that could tolerate severe winter weather, and utilized varieties of the Scotch rose that grew wild near the borders of Siberia, along with the Sweet Briar rose, that had survived thousands of European winters. He introduced ‘Fruhlingsgold’ in 1937 and ‘Fruhlingsmorgen’ in 1942. Both roses are stunning additions to the garden with their single flower form and robust nature. He experimented with hybrid musks, and produced one of the stars of the garden, ‘Erfurt’. This rose is absolutely gorgeous all year long, puts out loads of beautiful blooms that are wonderfully fragrant, grows well in some shade, and doesn’t even need much pruning!
In the quest to develop the red ‘Caroline Testout’, they succeeded with the release ‘Crimson Glory’ in 1935. The velvety red hybrid tea rose was intensely fragrant and was the first rose to be awarded the James Alexander Gamble award for fragrance in 1961. It’s also been the parent of many other wonderful fragrant red roses.
World War II depressed Wilhelm II greatly; he and brother Hermann kept the nursery going despite two disastrous winters that killed half their plants, including some irreplaceable varieties. Their staff were drawn into the military and were replaced with unskilled workers. Hermann was arrested by the British, and Sparrieshoop was bombed, but fortunately, their glass house survived. This was followed by the winter of 1946 – 47 which killed 90% of the roses that were to be sold in 1947 and nearly all the new varieties he had raised during the war. He is quoted as saying “We are slowly realizing in Germany that we have become the poorest devils on earth.”
'Dortmund' photo by Rich Baer
He kept at hybridizing, and in a fluke of nature, he identified the result of a spontaneous cross between the rose ‘Max Graf’ and an unknown red hybrid tea that bred true from seed. It was a fertile parent that brought health, hardiness, vigor, and repeat flowering into the mix, and was considered a new species, R kordesii. One of the first Kordesii hybrids released in 1953 was ‘Sparrieshoop’, a lovely, single pink rose with a white center and golden stamens. This was followed by many fine successors like the fabulous climber ‘Dortmund’.
'Nicole' photo by Rich Baer
His son Reimer joined in the business with extraordinary success. He introduced his first rose in 1956, followed in 1958 with the brilliant white ‘Iceberg’. Classified as a floribunda, it’s actually the result of crossing a hybrid musk and hybrid tea rose. Winner of the World Federation of Roses Hall of Fame Award in 1983, it’s a bushy plant with glossy light green foliage and bounteous blooms; it is a wonderful addition to any garden. There’s also a climbing version of it. The velvety deep red floribunda ‘Lilli Marlene’ followed in 1959. He continued with once success after another, with more floribundas, like ‘Sunsprite’, the brilliant yellow that also was awarded the James Alexander Gamble Fragrance award. ‘Lavaglut’, another deep red beauty was introduced in 1978 and ‘Nicole’, a floribunda that grows lustily all season, is covered with blooms, and seems to repel most insects and diseases was introduced in 1985.
'Lavaglut' photo by Rich Baer
They bred winning hybrid musks, like ‘Lavender Lassie’, the pale mauve old fashioned looking rose, and ‘Nymphenburg’, an orange-pink, semi-double bloom. Since they were also breeding for the florist trade, they produced some incredible hybrid tea roses that are very often award-winning exhibition varieties including ‘Kardinal’, a medium red, wonderfully formed rose in 1986; ‘Valencia’, an apricot blend; ‘Helen Naude’, a white, very double rose and the 2000 AARS winner ‘Crimson Bouquet’, a dark red grandiflora. A favorite hybrid tea is ‘Die Welt’, introduced in 1976. While it has a lower ARS rating, it performs very well in our area and is a stunning rose in color and form and lasts up to ten days in a vase.
'Sun Sprite' photo by Rich Baer
Reimer passed away in 2000, and the business is now run by his son Wilhelm III along with his cousins and other family. From their inception, the Kordes’ family has focused on breeding robust, disease-resistant, and floriferous varieties. Today, they breed and produce rose plants for the florist trade as well as garden roses, producing about 3.5 million rose bushes each year, selling in more than thirty countries around the globe.
And W. Kordes Söhne continues in their quest for new and better roses like Fairy Tale Roses. These enchanting varieties have the charisma and charm that will remind you of the roses in the garden of your grandmother with fully double and fragrant blooms with the added bonus of extraordinarily healthy foliage. They’ve also introduced Rigo-Roses, varieties that they say are surpassing known varieties in regard to their healthy growth. These varieties should be available in the United States in the coming years.
Above uncaptioned roses are submitted by Nanette Londeree and are: ‘Die Welt’, ‘Dortmund’, and ‘Sparrieshoop’